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Album reviews: Jeff Beck’s ‘Emotion & Commotion’

Also reviewed: MGMT’s ‘Congratulations,’ the Nels Cline Singers’ ‘Initiate’ and Murs & 9th Wonder ‘Fornever’

April 13, 2010

Jeff Beck

"Emotion & Commotion"

(Atco/Rhino)

2 stars

For a guy who plays guitar as well as anyone alive, Jeff Beck makes things a little easy for himself on "Emotion & Commotion," which features the former Yardbird's treatments of such heartstring-pluckers as "Over the Rainbow," "Nessun Dorma" and composer Dario Marianelli's "Elegy for Dunkirk" from the film "Atonement."

Sure, Beck handles the lovely melodies with a jeweler's delicacy, turning each one over as if examining a priceless diamond. But rare is the musician incapable of revealing the facets of Puccini's aria; it virtually guarantees a baseline of wonder, especially when cushioned by the lush murmur of a 64-piece orchestra, as it is here.

Imagine Phil Mickelson in a round of putt-putt and you'll get a sense of what's on the line for Beck's first studio album in seven years.

As the title suggests, "Emotion & Commotion" isn't all concert-hall melodrama; there's also harder-edged rock-band material: a down-and-dirty take on Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" with vocals from the English retro-soul singer Joss Stone; the reggae-accented "There's No Other Me"; and "Hammerhead," an appealingly overblown goth-funk workout that Beck says in the liner notes was inspired by "Miami Vice" theme composer Jan Hammer.

That's about as unhip a reference as one can make these days, but you have to admire Beck's audacity in making it. After all, what use are all those guitar-hero accolades if you don't put them to work?

—Mikael Wood

MGMT

"Congratulations"

Columbia

2 1/2 stars

MGMT meets needs we never knew we had. For instance, who guessed America craved a jazz flute in an odd-metered pop single? That one-finger synth riffs can adequately replace chorus hooks? Or that a duo weirder than any peers in Brooklyn should be camped out on mainstream rock radio?

After delivering a left-field hit with 2008's "Oracular Spectacular," MGMT earned its license to dive off the deep end. And lo, did it take its label up on it with "Congratulations," a sprawling mix of DEVO-inspired kitsch-punk, chocolate-fountain yacht rock and intricately screwy psychedelics that could indicate a Pop Art band running on all cylinders — or a fascinating, career-tipping indulgence.

The duo has largely dropped the sopping synthesizers that defined much of "Oracular Spectacular" in favor of, well, more of absolutely everything else. "Flash Delirium" evokes Queen if they had only a single Casio to play with but infinite tape to multi-track it, and "Siberian Breaks" has a bleary pomp worthy of "Pet Sounds."

The album's peppier tracks are front-loaded early, and even if the duo are capable ‘70s sylvan prog revivalists, the back end of "Congratulations" feels directionless. But still, let's savor any moment when a major label hears fake sitars and doesn't flinch.

—August Brown

The Nels Cline Singers

"Initiate"

Cryptogramophone

3 1/2 stars

Nearly 10 years into leading the winkingly named instrumental trio the Nels Cline Singers, it's hard to imagine what fringe of jazz and improvised rock could be unearthed next by the local guitar hero who joined the boundary-pushing band Wilco in 2004.

Now with their fourth album, Cline and a taut but feral rhythm section of bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola have regrouped for an often-breathtaking recording that's also their most rewarding and immediately approachable listen.

A sprawling double album split between one disc of studio recordings and a bare-knuckled live set, "Initiate" is steeped in the worldbeat-dusted jazz-rock of the ‘70s. Opening with a swirling chorus of electronic effects, they land a bracing first shot with "Floored," which finds Cline flexing a guitar tone akin to the warped keyboards of Chick Corea's work in Miles Davis' electric period while Amendola and Hoff lay down a concrete-busting funk-rock groove. "King Queen" forges a sort of psychedelic take on Cuban jazz as Cline and guest organist David Witham ride Hoff's elliptical bassline, building an insistent melody that opens to the outer limits.

They also show a more delicate side with "Divining" and "Zingiber" — tracks featuring an atmospheric chorus of actual singing from the trio — but with the second disc the group lays on the throttle and seldom lets up. Highlighted by a blistering, 14-minute cover of Weather Report's "Boogie Woogie Waltz" (featuring members of San Francisco indie band Deerhoof), they course through fiery improvisations while also nodding toward jazz tradition with a cover of Carla Bley's "And Now, the Queen" and a Jim Hall-dedicated version of the Singers' comparatively straightforward "Blues, Too."

Engrossing and ceaselessly inventive, "Initiate" isn't always easy listening, but it's essential for lovers of jazz and its fertile frontier.

—Chris Barton

Murs & 9th Wonder

"Fornever"

SMC Recordings

3 stars

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